“MAD MEN”: Wasted Partnership

 

“MAD MEN”: WASTED PARTNERSHIP

Looking back on Season Two of AMC’s “MAD MEN”, it occurred to me that the rivalry between the series protagonist, Don Draper aka Dick Whitman (Jon Hamm) and a supporting character named Herman “Duck” Phillips (Mark Moses), seemed like a complete waste of time . . . story wise. Do not worry. I am not criticizing the writing of Matt Weiner and his staff. At least on this subject. Instead, I am criticizing the behavior of two male characters, who I believe had the potential to be a winning advertising team.

Following senior partner Roger Sterling’s (John Slattery) second heart attack in the Season One episode (1.11) “Indian Summer”, one of the Sterling-Cooper’s clients had advised Bert Cooper (Robert Morse), the firm’s other senior partner, to make Creative Director Don Draper a junior partner. Which Cooper did at the end of the episode. He also told Don that as one of the partners, he should be the one to find someone to replace Roger as the Director of Account Services. In the following episode, (1.12) “Nixon vs. Kennedy”, Don hired Herman “Duck” Phillips.

In the Season One finale, (1.13) “The Wheel”, Duck seemed appreciative of how Don’s creative skills landed Kodak as a client for the firm. Yet, the early Season Two episodes clearly made it obvious that storm clouds were hovering on the horizon for the pair. In the Season Two premiere (2.01) “For Those Who Think Young”, Duck informed Roger that he believed younger copywriters with a bead on the youth of the early 1960s, should handle their new Martinson Coffee account, instead of veteran copywriter Freddy Rumsen (Joel Murray). Don dismissed the idea, claiming that a bunch of twenty year-olds lacked the experience and knowledge on how to sell products. But Roger forced Don to go along with Duck’s plans and hire the latter’s protégées – Smith “Smitty” (Patrick Cavanaugh) and Kurt (Edin Gali). Pete Campbell’s (Vincent Kartheiser) father perished in the famous American Airlines Flight 1 crash on March 1, 1962 in the second episode of the season, (2.01) “Flight 1”. And when Duck convinced Roger that Sterling Cooper should dump the regional Mohawk Airlines as a client and use Pete’s personal plight to win the bigger American Airlines (who sought to change advertising agencies following the disaster) as a new client. Naturally, Roger and Cooper dismissed Don’s protests and went ahead with Duck’s idea.

In the end, both men lost and won their arguments. Instead of gaining American Airlines as a new client, Sterling Cooper ended up with no client altogether. In (2.04) “Three Sundays”, Duck informed the Sterling Cooper staff that their efforts to present American Airlines with a new campaign had been for nothing, when the airline fired Duck’s contact. Many fans saw this as an example that not only had Don been right about not dropping Mohawk, they also seemed to view Duck as someone who was no longer competent at his job. However, three episodes later in (2.07) “The Gold Violin”, Duck proved to be right about hiring the much younger Smith and Kurt as copywriters for the Martinson Coffee account. Their efforts led to a new client for the Sterling Cooper agency.

But despite the success and failures of both men, Don and Duck continued to duke it out over the heart and soul of Sterling Cooper. Only once, in (2.08) “A Night to Remember”, did both men seemed capable of working seamlessly as a partnership, when their efforts led to Sterling Cooper landing the Heineken Beer account. But this ability to work as a pair failed to last very long. One, both men seemed adamant that their particular expertise in the advertising business – whether it was Creative or Accounts – only mattered. Two, Don received most of the praise from Cooper and Roger for the success of the Martinson Coffee account in“The Gold Violin”. Granted, Don tried to give some of the praise to Duck (who mainly deserved it), but he really did not try hard enough. And finally, Duck became so resentful of his failure to acquire a partnership in the firm that he maneuvered a takeover of Sterling Cooper by the old British advertising firm that he used to work for. The main conflicts between Don and Duck seemed to be twofold – Don’s preference to take the nostalgia route over the future in his advertising campaigns (unless forced to) over Duck’s willingness to look into the future of advertising (television ad spots and younger employees, for example); and each man’s belief that their respective expertise in the advertising field is the only one that matters.

Most viewers seemed to view Don as the hero of the conflict between the two men and label Duck as the villain. This preference for Don even extended to his belief that Creative was the backbone of the advertising industry. Personally . . . I disagree. Not only do I disagree with Don and many of the viewers, I would probably disagree with Duck’s view that advertising needed to solely rely upon images – especially television spots. Frankly, I am surprised that no one had ever considered that both Don and Duck’s views on the future of advertising are equally important. Don and other copywriters might create the message or jingo to attract the public. But it is Duck’s (and Pete’s) job to not only snag the client, but provide the client with the opportunity to sell his/her wares. Even if that means using television spots – definitely the wave of the future in the early 1960s.

But many fans seemed to be blinded by their own preference for Don over Duck. And both characters seemed to believe that their ideas of what the advertising business should be were the only ways. The problem with both Don and Duck was that business wise, they needed each other. Look at how well they had worked together in mid-Season Two over the Martinson Coffee and Heineken accounts. Duck needed Don’s creative talent. Don needed Duck’s business acumen and ability to foresee the future in advertising. Unfortunately, both remained stupidly resentful of each other.

In the end, Don’s career managed to survive, despite the failures of two marriage and the near failure of his career, due to personal problems, heavy drinking and shirking. Duck, a former alcoholic who resumed his old habit in later years, was simply plagued with bad luck. Sterling Cooper’s British owners fired him after he had indulged in a brief temper tantrum. He worked at an advertising firm called Grey for a few years, before being reduced to a corporate recruiter. Copywriter Peggy Olson and Accounts executive Pete Campbell learned to maintain a balance between Creatives and Accounts whenever they worked on an account together. Yet, every now and then, I find myself wondering what would have happened if Don and Duck had managed to achieve the same.

“AGENT CARTER”: Fans and Romance

“AGENT CARTER”: FANS AND ROMANCE

When “AGENT CARTER” first aired last year, some fans were speculating on who would become Peggy Carter’s future husband. After all, 2014′s “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” revealed that by 1953, she was married and had kids. Fans were wondering on whether Daniel Sousa or Jack Thompson would end up as her future husband. But when the character of Dr. Jason Wilkes was introduced as a potential romantic interest for Peggy in Season Two, the reaction among the show’s fandom became WEIRD.

First of all, there were the fans who screamed holy terror, complaining about how the show included a love triangle arc in the first place. They felt this story arc was sexist and an insult to Peggy’s character. I noticed that most of these fans were major supporters of a relationship between Peggy and her New York roommate, Angie Martinelli. I could not help but wonder … if Peggy had been in a love triangle with Angie and another woman, would they be making the same complaints?

I also noticed that many fans reacted to Jason Wilkes in a similar manner as Daniel Sousa. They either dismissed him and pretended that he did not exist. Some tried to focus on any negative traits he might possess – in an effort to indicate that he was unworthy of Agent Carter or a villain. In fact, the Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki page for Jason had this to say about his relationship with Peggy:

“This ambition extended into his personal life as well by manipulating a way to have a date with Peggy Carter, though she initially refused to go out with him.”

Way to go, MCU Wiki for dismissing Jason’s feelings for Peggy as mere manipulative ambition. But most of the fans became increasingly fervent … almost rabid in their support of a Peggy/Sousa relationship.

And finally, there is Peggy’s relationship with Sousa. Why was Peggy romantically interested in Sousa when Season Two began? What led to this? At the end of Season One, she wasn’t the least bit interested in started a romance with him. Then she shows up in Los Angeles at the beginning of this new season, expressing interest in him. Why? At least with Jason Wilkes, audiences saw some development of Peggy’s interest in him. But with Sousa … none at all, whatsoever. I get the feeling that he was the convenient white guy around to ensure that Peggy will never choose Jason.

Considering that Jason is an African-American character, I found these reactions rather … well, WEIRD. Dare I say racist? Because right now, I am beginning to wonder. I would not have minded a romantic triangle on this show. But the fan reaction to Dr. Jason Wilkes and his role in Peggy Carter’s life in Season Two seemed to have left an ugly taint in my regard for this show and the latter’s fandom.

Some people have justified the idea of Peggy Carter choosing Daniel Sousa over Jason Wilkes in this ridiculously written love triangle for Season Two of “AGENT CARTER”. They claimed that since Peggy and Sousa had “history”, it was only natural that she would choose him.

I say . . . BULLSHIT to that.

There was no law that Marvel had to follow through with Peggy and Sousa. She had not display any interest in Sousa, last season. And then suddenly, she was interested in him in the beginning of Season Two? Without any explanation?

Marvel’s history with non-white characters is pretty shabby. And the manner in which it dealt with this love triangle merely became another notch in its inability to portray complex non-white characters or interracial romances. Heck, they had an interracial romance between a black man and a woman of Asian descent in “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.”. Melinda May and Andrew Garner anyone? And then they transformed poor Andrew into a monster. God. Honestly? Meanwhile, most of the other black characters in Marvel tend to be portrayed as asexual … and safe. Especially the men. Only the Luke Cage character promises to show any potential. And I can only wonder if there are fans already protesting the idea of a romance between him and another Marvel character named Jessica Jones.

“POLDARK” Series One (1975): Episodes One to Four

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“POLDARK” SERIES ONE (1975): EPISODES ONE TO FOUR

A few years ago, I had tried a stab at the first episode of the 1975-1977 series, “POLDARK”, which starred Robin Ellis. After viewing ten minutes of theatrical acting and dated photography in Episode One on You Tube, I gave up.

Last summer, I read all of the hullaballoo surrounding this new adaptation with Aidan Turner in the lead. Utilizing Netflix, I tried my luck again with the 1975 series and ended up enjoying the first four episodes (I have yet to watch any further episodes) and quite enjoyed it. I enjoyed both versions so much that I took the trouble to purchase both the entire 1975-77 series and the 2015 series. In fact, I have decided to watch both versions simultaneously. But I am here to discuss the first four episodes of the 1975 series.

Series One of “POLDARK”, which aired in 1975, is based upon Winston Graham’s first four novels in the saga – 1945’s “Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-1787”, “Demelza: A Novel of Cornwall, 1788-1790” (1946), 1950’s “Jeremy Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1790-1791 and 1953’s “Warleggan (Poldark). Episodes One to Four seemed to be an adaptation of the first novel. The series begins with a young Ross Poldark returning home to Cornwall following military service with the British Army during the American Revolution. Ross spent the last year or two as a prisoner-of-war, unaware that he had been declared dead. He learns from a fellow coach passenger and later, his father’s solicitor that Joshua Poldark had died financially broke. More bad news follow with Ross’ discovery that his Uncle Charles Poldark had promised to sell his estate Nampara to the banking family, the Warleggans. And lady love, Elizabeth Chynoweth, had become engaged to Charles’ son, his cousin Francis, after receiving news of his “death”. The only possessions Ross has left are his father’s estate, Nampara, which is now in ruins, two mines that had been closed for some time and two servants – the drunken Jud and Prudie Paynter – to help him work the estate. Even worse, the Warleggans, who have risen from being blacksmiths to bankers, seemed to be gaining financial control over the neighborhood. In Episode Two, Ross rescues a miner’s daughter named Demelza Carne from a mob trying to use her dog Garrick as part of a vicious dogfight at a local fair. Taking pity on her, he decides to hire her as his new kitchen maid.

When I finally began to embark upon this series, I had no idea of its reputation as one of Britain’s most beloved period dramas. I discovered that “POLDARK” was regarded just as highly in the 1970s, as “DOWNTON ABBEY” had become some thirty-five to forty years later. Mind you, I regard Julian Fellowes’ series as the inferior series. My viewing of the first four episodes of this series made me finally appreciate why it was so highly regarded. It really is first-rate production. However . . . it had its problems. What movie or television production does not?

When it comes to an accurate adaptation of any novel or play, I tend to harbor ambiguous views on the matter. It depends upon how well it serves the story on screen or if it makes sense. Anyone familiar with Graham’s novels know that the 1975 adaptation is not accurate. I had no problems with the production starting with Ross’ stage journey to his home in Cornwall, considering that the novel started with a meeting between Ross’ dying father and his Uncle Charles. I had no problems with Elizabeth’s final reason for marrying Francis – to ensure that Charles Poldark would pay off her father’s debts. This little scenario even included an interesting scene in which Ross had volunteered to use his loan for Wheal Leisure to pay off Mr. Chynoweth’s debts in order to gain Elizabeth’s hand in marriage. Fortunately, she stopped him from committing such a stupid act. But I had a problem with one major change and a few minor ones.

My biggest problem with these first four episodes of “POLDARK” centered on the circumstances that led Ross to marry his kitchen maid, Demelza Carne. Apparently, the series’ producers and screenwriter Jack Pulman must have found Graham’s portrayal of this situation hard to swallow and decided to change the circumstances leading to Ross and Demelza’s marriage. In this version, Ross became drunk following his failure to prevent his former farmhand Jim Carter from being sentenced to prison for poaching. Demelza, who had been harboring a yen for Ross, decided to comfort him with sex. The following morning, Ross decided it would be better if Demelza no longer work at Nampara, so that he would not be tempted to have sex with her again. And what happened? Demelza eventually went to live with her father Tom Carne, now a religious zealot, and his new wife. She also discovered that she was pregnant. To make matter worse, Ross managed to convince his former love, Elizabeth Poldark, to leave his adulterous cousin Francis and live with him.

One, I found it very implausible that a man of Ross’ station and time would marry his kitchen maid. He might sleep with her . . . yes. But marry her? A “responsible” man like Ross would have settled money upon Demelza, find a man of her class willing to accept her as a wife and the baby as his . . . or both. He would not marry her. As for Elizabeth’s willingness to leave Francis for Ross . . . I really found this implausible. Elizabeth is too pragmatic to be willing to sacrifice her respectability to leave her husband for another man. Nor would she be willing to risk losing her son Geoffrey Charles, for Francis would have never allowed her to see the boy again. The only way this whole situation could have worked is if Ross had been in love with Demelza at the time. If he had, he would have never suggested that Elizabeth leave Francis for him.

There were other problems – minor problems – that I found in these first four episodes.h sex. The following morning, Ross decided it would be better if Demelza no longer work at Nampara, so that he would not be tempted to have sex with her again. And what happened? Demelza eventually went to live with her father Tom Carne, now a religious zealot, and his new wife. She also discovered that she was pregnant. To make matter worse, Ross managed to convince his former love, Elizabeth Poldark, to leave his adulterous cousin Francis and live with him.

One, I found it very implausible that a man of Ross’ station and time would marry his kitchen maid. He might sleep with her . . . yes. But marry her? A “responsible” man like Ross would have settled money upon Demelza, find a man of her class willing to accept her as a wife and the baby as his . . . or both. He would not marry her. As for Elizabeth’s willingness to leave Francis for Ross . . . I really found this implausible. Elizabeth is too pragmatic to be willing to sacrifice her respectability to leave her husband for another man. Nor would she be willing to risk losing her son Geoffrey Charles, for Francis would have never allowed her to see the boy again. The only way this whole situation could have worked is if Ross had been in love with Demelza at the time. If he had, he would have never suggested that Elizabeth leave Francis for him.

There were other problems – minor problems – that I found in these first four episodes. One episode featured Francis’ violent encounter with Verity’s wannabee suitor, Captain Blamey and the other, a fight between Ross and his future father-in-law, Tom Carne. And I thought Christopher Barry handled both scenes in a rather clumsy manner. Both situations seemed to be a case of“now you see it, now you don’t”. In Ross’ fight with Carne, the 17 year-old Demelza got into the melee (which did not happen in the novel), allowing her to spout some nonsense about women’s right in one of those “a woman’s travails” speeches that came off as . . . well, clumsy and contrived. It did not help that actress Angharad Rees seemed to be screeching at the top of her voice at the time. In fact, screeching seemed to be the hallmark of Rees’ early portrayal of the adolescent Demelza in an emotional state. Some fans have waxed lyrical over Clive Francis’ portrayal of Francis Poldark. So far, I have yet to see what the big deal was about. Other than three scenes, Francis spent these first four episodes portraying a cold and rather aloof Francis. I found it difficult to get emotionally invested in the character.

Considering all of the problems I had with Episodes One-Four, one would wonder why I enjoyed “POLDARK”. The series may not be perfect, but it was damn entertaining. Some have compared the production to the 1939 film, “GONE WITH THE WIND”. But honestly, it reminds me of the television adaptation of John Jakes’ literary trilogy, “North and South”. Both the Seventies series and the “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy between 1985 and 1994 share so many similarities. Both series featured their own set of flaws, entertaining melodrama, strong characterizations and a historical backdrop. In the case of “POLDARK”, the historical backdrop featured Great Britain – especially Cornwall – after the American Revolution, during the last two decades of the 18th century. It is a period of which I have never been familiar – especially in Britain. I never knew that Britain’s conflict with and the loss of the American colonies had such a negative impact upon the country’s economic state. I had heard of the United States and France’s economic struggles during this period, but I never knew about Britain’s struggles. I also recently learned about the impact of the fallen tin and copper prices on Cornwall, during the 1770s and especially the 1780s. This economic struggle contributed to the slow decline of the aristocracy and the landed gentry for Cornish families like the Poldarks and the Chynoweths.

I thought this economic depression was well-handled by the production team. Not once did the producers, Barry or Pulman rush through Ross’ struggles to establish a new fortune. They also took their time in conveying the struggles of nearly everyone else in the neighborhood – the other members of the Poldark family, the Cynoweths, and especially the working-class. This struggle of the working-class manifested not only Demelza’s story arc, but also that of Jim and Jinny Carter in the first three episodes. This struggled boiled down to a heartbreaking moment in which Jim was caught poaching on a local estate and sentenced to prison – despite Ross’ futile efforts to help him. I noticed that although the Warleggan family loomed menacingly in the background, only one member had made at least two appearances in these first four episodes – Nicholas Warleggan. The most famous member of the family – George Warleggan – had yet to make an appearance.

And despite my complaints about the situation that led to Ross and Demelza’s marriage, I must admit that the emotional journey of Ross and the other leading characters managed to grab my attention. Being familiar with Graham’s novel, I am well aware that Ross’ return, Elizabeth’s decision to marry Francis, Ross’ meeting with Demelza, the marital fallout between Elizabeth and Francis and Ross’ inability to get over losing Elizabeth will have consequences down the road. I have to admit that “POLDARK” did a pretty damn good job in setting up the entire saga . . . despite a few hiccups. I found it interesting that Episode One solely featured Ross’ return and his emotional reaction to Elizabeth’s decision to marry Francis. He did not even meet Demelza until Episode Two.

These first four episodes also set up a conflict between Demelza and Elizabeth. I have mixed feelings about this. Personally, I rather liked how Debbie Horsfield managed to set up a quasi-friendship between the two women in the new adaptation. But since Demelza and Elizabeth were probably doomed not to be friends, I see that screenwriter Jack Pulman decided to immediately go for the jugular and set up hostilities between the pair. In Episode Three, a jealous Demelza had maliciously blamed Elizabeth for Francis’ infidelity, even though she had yet to meet the pair. I found this even more ironic, considering the episode also featured a minor scene in which Elizabeth actually made an attempt to emotionally reach out to Francis. He rejected her due to an assignation with some prostitute. And the whole scenario regarding Ross’ suggestion that Elizabeth leave Francis and Demelza’s pregnancy boiled down to a long scene in which Ross informed Elizabeth of the situation and her angry reaction. Which included calling Demelza a whore. By the end of Episode Four, Pulman and Barry had firmly established hostility between the two women.

Much has been said about the series’ exteriors shot in Cornwall. Yes, they looked beautiful, wild and almost exotic for Great Britain. Not even the faded photography can hide the beauty of the Cornish landscape. I also found John Bloomfield’s costume designs very attractive, but not exactly mind blowing. Also, a few of the costumes for actress Jill Townsend seemed a bit loose – especially in the first two episodes. As for the series’ score written by Kenyon Emrys-Roberts . . . not exactly memorable.

I might as well come to the performances featured in Episodes One to Four. Overall, I found them pretty solid. Although I came away with the feeling that some of the cast members and director Christopher Barry thought “POLDARK” was a stage play. Yes, I found some of the performances a bit theatrical. And I have to include some of the main cast members. I have always liked the Charles Poldark character – not because he was likable. I simply found him rather colorful. And I thought actor Frank Middlemass did an excellent job in conveying this aspect of Mr. Poldark Senior. Jonathan Newth gave a solid, yet intense performance as the barely volatile Captain Blamey. Both Paul Curran and Mary Wimbush gave very colorful performances as Ross’ slothful servants, Jud and Prudie Paynter. And yet, some of that color threatened to become very theatrical. On the other hand, Stuart Doughty gave a solid and subtle performance as Ross’ former servant-turned-miner, Jim Carter. I could also say the same for Jillian Bailey, who portrayed Jim’s wife, Jinny. By the way, fans of the 1983 miniseries, “JANE EYRE” should be able to spot Zelah Clarke (a future Jane Eyre) in a small role as one of the stagecoach passengers in the opening scene of Episode One.

There have been a great deal of praise for Angharad Rees’ portrayal of Demelza Carne, Ross’ kitchen maid and soon-to-be wife. And yes, I believe she earned that praise . . . at least in the second half of Episode Three and all of Episode Four. I found her performance very lively and when the scene demanded it, subtle. I thought she was outstanding in the scene that featured Demelza’s seduction of Ross. However, she was at least thirty or thirty-one when she portrayed Demelza in Series One. And her portrayal of a Demelza in early-to-mid adolescence struck me as loud and over-the-top. Thankfully, the screeching ceased in the second half of Episode Three. Clive Francis’ portrayal of Francis Poldark struck me as somewhat subdued or a bit on the cold side – except in two scenes. One of them featured Francis’ near death inside the Wheal Leisure mine, when he feared Ross would allow him to drown. Another featured his confrontation with Captain Blamey, the sea captain who became romantically interested in Francis’ sister Verity. In both cases, the actor came off as a bit theatrical. But I thought his performance in Episode Four, which featured Elizabeth’s announcement that she would leave Francis, seemed more controlled, yet properly emotional at the same time.

If I have to give awards for the best two performances in these first four episodes, I would give them to Jill Townsend as Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark and Norma Streader as Verity Poldark. It seemed to me they were the only two members of the cast who managed to avoid any theatrical acting in any of their scenes. Even when their characters were in an emotional state. One of Streader’s finest moments occurred in Season Two, when she expressed her feelings about Captain Blamey in a conversation with her cousin Ross. Despite expressing Verity’s emotions in a fervent manner, Streader still managed to maintain control of her performance. For me, Townsend’s finest moments occurred throughout Episode Four. From the moment Ross suggested that Elizabeth leave Francis for good, Townsend conveyed Elizabeth’s emotional journey throughout this episode – from surprise to hopeful to desperation, relief, happiness, disbelief, anger and finally bittersweet disappointment. I may not have approved the producers’ decision to include a scene featuring Demelza’s pregnancy and Elizabeth’s decision to leave Francis. But dammit, Townsend acted her ass off and gave the best performance from the entire cast during this particular sequence. One of her best scenes featured a one-on-one conversation with Streader’s Verity.

I have seen actor Robin Ellis in other movie and television productions, including 1971’s “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” and 1981’s“THE GOOD SOLDIER”. If I were to pick his best roles, I would choose two – the passive aggressive American John Dowell in “THE GOOD SOLDIER” and of course, Ross Poldark. The producers of the series selected the right actor to portray the volatile war veteran-turned-mine owner from Graham’s saga. He is Ross Poldark . . . of the 1970s that is. Granted, Ellis had his moments of theatrical acting. There were times during the first four episodes in which I had to turn down my television volume. But despite this, I thought he did an excellent job in capturing all aspects – both good and bad – of his character’s personality. Two scenes featuring his performance caught my attention. Ellis seemed a bit scary and intense when he expressed Ross’ reaction to being rejected by Elizabeth Chynoweth in Episode One. And I thought he gave a poignant performance in the scene that featured Demelza’s seduction of Ross.

There you have it . . . my impression of the first four episodes from the 1975 series, “POLDARK”. So far, this adaptation of the first novel in Winston Graham’s literary series had its share of flaws. But I feel that its virtues overshadowed the former. In fact, I found myself so captivated by Episodes One to Four that I feel more than ready to continue this saga. Onward to Episode Five!

Five Favorite Episodes of “THE ASTRONAUT WIVES CLUB” (2015)

Below is a list of my five favorite episodes of ABC’s limited series, “THE ASTRONAUT WIVES CLUB”. Based upon Lily Koppel’s 2013 book, the series was developed by Stephanie Savage.

FIVE FAVORITE EPISODES OF “THE ASTRONAUT WIVES CLUB” (2015)

1 - 1.08 Abort

1. (1.08) “Abort” – Betty Grissom is forced to deal with the grim reality of the death of her husband, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, as she prepares to openly question the circumstances regarding his pre-launch test for Apollo 1 mission.

2 - 1.05 Flashpoint

2. (1.05) “Flashpoint” – Trudy Cooper discovers that NASA senior officials are making an effort to quash a burgeoning astronaut program for women.

3 - 1.07 Rendezvous

3. (1.07) “Rendezvous” – Following the success of the Gemini program, the Apollo program is launched and the pressure on the astronaut wives grows. Meanwhile, Marilyn Lovell struggles to conceal a pregnancy on the eve of her husband James “Jim” Lovell’s Gemini 12 mission.

4 - 1.04 Liftoff

4. (1.04) “Liftoff” – The Mercury program families begin new lives in Houston on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The period also features the arrival of the Gemini program families. Marge and Deke Slayton deal with the latter’s grounded status, while Trudy and Gordo’s tense relationship begins to thaw.

5 - 1.02 Protocol

5. (1.02) “Protocol” – While Louise and Alan Shepard bask in the success of his Freedom 7 flight, Betty Grissom preps for Gus’ first flight and turns to Louise for advice. Meanwhile, Annie Glenn struggles with the idea of facing the media with her stutter, in the wake of husband John Glenn’s Mercury-Atlas 6 mission.

“THE HATEFUL EIGHT” (2015) Review

“THE HATEFUL EIGHT” (2015) Review

Following the success of his 2012 movie, “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, Quentin Tarantino set about creating another movie with a Western theme that also reflected today’s themes and social relationships in the United States. However, due to circumstances beyond his control, Tarantino nearly rejected the project. And if he had, audiences would have never seen what came to be . . . “THE HATEFUL EIGHT”.

The circumstances that nearly led Tarantino to give up the project occurred when someone gained access to his script and published it online in early 2014. The producer-director had considered publishing the story as a novel, until he directed a reading of the story the United Artists Theater in the Ace Hotel Los Angeles. The event was organized by the Film Independent at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) as part of the Live Read series. The success of the event eventually convinced Tarantino to shoot the movie.

“THE HATEFUL EIGHT” is at its heart, a mystery. I would not describe it as a murder-mystery, but more like . . . well, let me begin. The story begins in the post-Civil War Wyoming Territory where a stagecoach rushing to get ahead of an oncoming blizzard, is conveying bounty hunter John Ruth aka “The Hangman” and his handcuffed prisoner, a female outlaw named Daisy Domergue. The stagecoach is bound for the town of Red Rock, where Daisy is scheduled to be hanged. During the journey, an African-American bounty hunter named Major Marquis Warren, who is transporting three dead bounties to the town of Red Rock, hitches a ride on the stagecoach. His horse had died on him. Several hours later, the stagecoach picks up another passenger, a former Confederate militiaman named Chris Mannix, who claims to be traveling to Red Rock in order to become the town’s new sheriff. The stagecoach passengers are forced to seek refuge at a stage station called Minnie’s Haberdashery, when the blizzard finally strikes. The new arrivals are greeted by a Mexican handyman named Bob, who informs them that Minnie is visiting a relative and has left him in charge. The other lodgers are a British-born professional hangman Oswaldo Mobray; a quiet cowboy named Joe Gage, who is traveling to visit his mother; and Sanford Smithers, a former Confederate general. Forever paranoid, Ruth disarms all but Warren, with whom he had bonded during stagecoach journey. When Warren has a violent confrontation with Smithers, Daisy spots someone slip poison into a pot of coffee, brewing on the stove. Someone she recognizes as a fellow outlaw, who is there to spring her free from Ruth’s custody. And there is where the mystery lies – the identity of Daisy’s fellow outlaw.

“THE HATEFUL EIGHT” marks the sixth Quentin Tarantino movie I have ever seen. I also found it the most unusual. But it is not my favorite. In fact, I would not even consider it among my top three favorites. And here is the reason why. “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” struck me as being too damn long with a running time of two hours and forty-seven minutes. I realize that most of Tarantino films usually have a running time that stretches past two hours. But we are talking of a film that is basically a character study/mystery. Even worse, most of the film is set at a stagecoach station – a one-story building with one big room. Not even Tarantino’s attempt to stretch out the stage journey at the beginning of the film could overcome this limited setting. And due to the limited setting and film’s genre, “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” is probably the least epic film in his career, aside from his first one, 1993’s “RESERVOIR DOGS”. At least that film did not stretch into a ridiculously long 167 minute running time.

I also thought Tarantino made too much of a big deal in the confrontation between Major Marquis Warren and General Sanford Smithers. Apparently, Warren had a grudge against Smithers for executing black troops at the Battle of Baton Rouge. I find this improbable, due to the fact that there were no black troops fighting for the Union during that battle, which was a Union victory. There were no black Union or Confederate troops known to have taken part in that particular battle. Tarantino should have taken the time to study his Civil War history. But what really annoyed me about the Warren-Smithers confrontation was that Tarantino thought it was necessary to include a flashback showing Warren’s encounter with Smither’s son, which resulted in the latter’s death. I realize that the Warren-Smithers encounter allowed Daisy’s mysterious colleague to poison the coffee. But a flashback on Warren and Smithers Jr.? Unnecessary. I also found Tarantino’s narration in the film somewhat unnecessary. Frankly, he is not a very good narrator. And I found one particular piece of narration rather unnecessary – namely the scene in which Daisy witnessed the coffee being poisoned. Tarantino could have shown this on screen without any voice overs.

Despite these flaws, I must admit that I still managed to enjoy “THE HATEFUL EIGHT”. It featured some outstanding characterizations and dialogue. And it seemed the cast really took advantage of these well-written aspects of the script. I am not surprised that the film had received numerous nominations for Best Ensemble. Although the running time for “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” might be longer than it should, I have to give Tarantino kudos for his well-structured screenplay. He took his time in setting up the narrative, the mystery and his characters. And although he may have overdone it a bit by taking his time in reaching the film’s denouement, Tarantino delivered quite a payoff that really took me by surprise, once he reached that point. Unlike many movie directors today, Tarantino is a firm believer in taking his time to tell his story. My only regret is that he took too much time for a story that required a shorter running time.

But what I really liked about “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” is that it proved to be a new direction for Tarantino. In this age filled with lack of originality in the arts, it was refreshing to see there are artists out there who are still capable of being original. After viewing the movie at the theater, it occurred to me that is was basically an Agatha Christie tale set in the Old West. Tarantino utilized many aspects from various Christie novels. But the movie resembled one movie in particular. Only I will not say what that novel is, for it would allow anyone to easily guess what happens in the end. Although many of Christie’s novels and Tarantino’s movies feature a good deal of violence, “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” featured very little violence throughout most of its narrative . . . until the last quarter of the film. Once the Major Warren-General Smithers confrontation took place, all bets were off.

I wish I could comment on the movie’s production values. But if I must be honest, I did not find it particularly memorable. Well, there were one or two aspects of the movie’s production that impressed me. I really enjoyed Robert Richardson’s photography of Colorado, which served as Wyoming Territory for this film. I found it sharp and colorful. I also enjoyed Yohei Taneda’s production designs for the movie . . . especially for the Minnie’s Haberdashery setting. I though Taneda, along with art directors Benjamin Edelberg and Richard L. Johnson, did a great job of conveying the Old West in that one setting.

Naturally, I cannot discuss “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” without mentioning the cast. What can I say? They were outstanding. And Tarantino did an outstanding job directing them. As far as I know, “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” marked the first time at least three members of the cast have worked with Tarantino – Jennifer Jason-Leigh, Channing Tatum and Demián Bichir. Otherwise, everyone else seemed to be veterans of a Tarantino production, especially Samuel L. Jackson. “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” marked his sixth collaboration with the director. It is a pity that he was not recognized for his portrayal of bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren. As usual, he did an outstanding job of portraying a very complex character, who not only proved to be a ruthless law enforcer, but also a somewhat cruel man as shown in his confrontation with General Smithers. Actually, most of the other characters proved to be equally ruthless. Kurt Russell’s portrayal of bounty hunter John Ruth struck me as equally impressive. The actor did an excellent job in conveying Ruth’s ruthlessness, his sense of justice and especially his paranoia. Walton Goggin’s portrayal of ex-Confederate-turned-future lawman seemed like a far cry from his laconic villain from “DJANGO UNCHAINED”. Oddly enough, his character did not strike me as ruthless as some of the other characters and probably a little more friendly – except toward Warren. Jennifer Jason-Leigh has been earning acting nominations – including Golden Globe and Academy Award Best Supporting Actress nods – for her portrayal of the captured fugitive Daisy Domergue. Those nominations are well deserved, for Jason-Leigh did an outstanding job of bringing an unusual character to life. Ironically, the character spent most of the movie as a battered prisoner of Russell’s John Ruth. Yet, thanks to Jason-Leigh, she never lets audiences forget how ornery and dangerous she can be.

Tim Roth, who had not been in a Tarantino production since 1995’s “FOUR ROOMS”, gave probably the most jovial performance as the very sociable English-born professional hangman, Oswaldo Mobray. Bruce Dern, who was last seen in“DJANGO UNCHAINED”, had a bigger role in this film as the unsociable ex-Confederate General Sanford Smithers, who seemed determined not to speak to Warren. Despite portraying such an unsympathetic character, Dern did an excellent job in attracting the audience’s sympathy, as his character discovered his son’s grisly fate at Warren’s hands. Michael Masden gave a very quiet and subtle performance as Joe Gage, a rather silent cowboy who claimed to be on his way to visit his mother. And yet . . . he also projected an aura of suppressed danger, which made one suspect if he was Daisy’s collaborator. A rather interesting performance came from Demián Bichir, who portrayed the stage station’s handyman, Bob. Like Madsen’s Gage, Bichir’s Bob struck me as a quiet and easygoing man, who also conveyed an element of danger. I was very surprised to see Channing Tatum in this film, who portrayed Jody Domergue, Daisy’s older brother. Although his role was small, Channing was very effective as the villainous Domergue, who could also be quite the smooth talker. “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” also featured excellent supporting performances from the likes of James Parks, Dana Gourrier, Lee Horsley, Zoë Bell, Keith Jefferson and Gene Jones.

Yes, I found “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” too long. I feel it could have been cut short at least by forty minutes. And I was not that impressed by Quentin Tarantino’s voice over in the film. I could have done without it. But despite its flaws, I cannot deny that I found “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” to be one of the director’s more interesting movies in his career. With a first-rate cast led by Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Walton Goggins and Jennifer Jason-Leigh; and a screenplay that seemed to be an interesting combination of a murder mystery and a Western; Tarantino created one of his most original movies during his career.

 

“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Eight “The Storm” Commentary

“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Eight “The Storm” Commentary

The eighth episode of “CENTENNIAL” is a bit of a conundrum for me. Of the eight episodes so far, it seemed to be the only one in which the time span struck me as rather confusing. Which is a pity, because I found it rather interesting.

“The Storm” had the potential to be one of the better episodes of the miniseries. Unfortunately, it seemed marred by a good deal of mistakes that left the time span rather confusing. The previous episode, “The Shepherds” ended with Levi Zendt leaving Centennial to visit his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. And since the episode opened with Levi’s arrival in Lancaster, I can only assume that the episode began in the fall of 1881. Levi did not return to Centennial until the onset of winter. And this led me to assume that the episode spanned a few months around the late fall and early winter of 1881. However, certain aspect in the episode seemed to hint that several years, instead of a few months, had passed between Levi’s arrival in Lancaster and the winter storm that finally struck Centennial.

Charles Larson’s screenplay made it clear that Levi’s visit to Pennsylvania did not last that long. In fact, his wife Lucinda and his son, Martin, expressed surprise that he had returned home to Centennial before the winter. And considering that it took seven days to journey by rail from the West Coast to the East Coast; Levi’s journey from Colorado to Pennsylvania should have taken less than seven days. In total, his entire trip should have lasted less than a month. And yet . . . there were signs in the episode that several years had passed since the end of “The Shepherds”. One, the character of Amos Calendar seemed to have aged by a decade. Seriously. While Levi was in Pennsylvania, the Findlay Perkins character had arrived in Centennial. Around the time of his arrival, Oliver and Charlotte Seccombe were behaving like a couple that had been married for several years, instead of honeymooners. More importantly, a semi-manor made of brick (or stones) had replaced the clapboard ranch house that served as Venneford Ranch’s main house. I doubt very much that Seccombe was able erect a small manor house within a month or two. Also, the winter storm that struck the Western Plains occurred in 1886-1887. Levi’s journey to Pennsylvania should have occurred five years later. Larson’s handling of the episode’s time span seemed so sloppy that I could only shake my head in disbelief.

But the episode’s time span was not the only thing that troubled me. The first thirty minutes of “The Storm” featured a number of flashbacks I have not seen since “Only the Rocks Live Forever”. The flashbacks in that first episode made sense. It was the only episode that featured the character of Lame Beaver in the main narrative, yet at the same time, allowed viewers access to the character’s past. Because “The Storm” featured the deaths of Levi Zendt and Mule Canby, viewers were subjected to flashbacks featuring Levi’s journey to the West “The Wagon and the Elephant”and the Skimmerhorn cattle drive in “The Longhorns”. Instead of providing background to the characters of Levi and Mule, these flashbacks only dragged the episode’s first half hour.

Thankfully, “The Storm” was not a complete waste of time. It featured some first-rate drama and performances. The episode marked the first appearances of the Wendell family. So far, the family has managed to charm most of Centennial’s citizens with their good manners, verbal skills and acting talent. They have also attracted the suspicion of one Sheriff Axel Dumire. As I had stated earlier, the character of Mule Canby, last seen wounded and hauled to a military fort by R.J. Poteet in “The Longhorns”. He has become a trick shot artist for a circus, with Nacho Gomez as his assistant. Their reunion with former members of the Skimmerhorn drive – Jim Lloyd, John Skimmerhorn and Amos Calendar – provided the episode with a very warm and emotional moment before Canby’s tragic death in a tent fire.

There were two story arcs in “The Storm” that proved to be the highlights of the episodes. One story arc featured Levi and Lucinda’s frustrations with their younger offspring, the unhappy and unstable Clemma. Following his return to Centennial, Levi was surprised by the appearance of his daughter, who was supposed to be going to school in St. Louis. Instead, the couple learned of their wayward daughter’s lurid exploits that included prostitution, jail time and marriage to a bigamist. In a memorable speech, Levi reminded Lucinda that despite the disappointments and unhappy times, they had also experienced many positive things in their lives – including their marriage and the growth of Centennial. Unfortunately, this poignant moment was spoiled by Clemma’s decision to leave town on the first available eastbound train – a decision that led to Levi’s death near the rail tracks during the winter storm.

The storm also featured in a tense plot arc that spelled the possible doom of Oliver Seccombe’s career as a rancher. His handling of the Venneford Ranch’s accounts had led his London bosses to send a Scottish accountant named Findlay Perkins to check the books. Both John Skimmerhorn and Jim Lloyd tried to explain to the accountant that the region’s method of free-range cattle ranching made it impossible to precisely account for every cow or bull on the ranch. Being a very perceptive man, Findlay was still able to discover that Seccombe had been mishandling the ranch’s profits in order to build the new house for his wife, Charlotte. Before Findlay could return to Britain, the storm struck the region, forcing him to remain at Venneford. One of the episode’s highlights proved to be the tense scenes between Findlay and the Seccombes, as they waited out the storm.

The episode’s biggest virtue proved to be the outstanding performances by the cast. Just about everyone in this episode gave top-notch performances. But there were a few I would consider to be the best. One of them came from Gregory Harrison, who made his last appearance as former emigrant-turned-merchant, Levi Zendt. Timothy Dalton and Lynn Redgrave were superb as the besieged Oliver and Charlotte Seccombe, anxious over their future with Venneford Ranch and forced to deal with the likes of Findlay Perkins. Clive Revill gave an excellent performance as the Scottish accountant. And his scenes with Dalton and Redgrave were filled with delicious tension and humor. It was nice to see Greg Mullavey as the always gregarious Mule Canby. And I truly enjoyed the tensions between Brian Keith’s suspcious Sheriff Axel Dumire and the wonderfully scheming Wendells, portrayed by Anthony Zerbe, Lois Nettleton and Doug McKeon. But the stand-out performance came from Adrienne LaRussa’s excellent portrayal of the sad and conflicted Clemma Zendt. LaRussa was superb in conveying all aspects of Clemma’s personality, which included her spiteful teasing of Jim Lloyd, and her insecurities. But she gave an Emmy worthy performance in the scene in which she conveyed Clemma’s pathetic life back East to the Zendts.

It is a pity that “The Storm” was marred by a questionable time span and unnecessary flashbacks. The episode had the potential to be one of the best in the 12-part miniseries. It marked the death of a major character and also a change in Centennial’s history with the end of free-range ranching and the Wendells’ arrival. But some outstanding performances and the winter storm featured still made it one of the more interesting episodes, in the end.

“BARBARY COAST” (1935) Review

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“BARBARY COAST” (1935) Review

I have seen a good number of television and movie Westerns in my time. But I find it rather odd that it is hard – almost difficult – to find a well known story set during the California Gold Rush era. And I find that rather surprising, considering many historians regard it as one of the most interesting periods in the history of the American Old West.

Of the movies and television productions I have come across, one of them is the 1935 Western, “BARBARY COAST”. Directed by Howard Hawks and adapted from Herbert Asbury’s 1933 book, the movie told the story about one Mary Rutledge, a young woman from the East Coast who arrives in 1850 San Francisco to marry the wealthy owner of a local saloon. She learns from a group of men at the wharf that her fiancé had been killed – probably murdered the owner of the Bella Donna restaurant, one Louis Chamalis. Upon meeting Chamalis at his establishment, Mary agrees to be his companion for both economic and personal reasons. She eventually ends up running a crooked roulette wheel at the Bella Donna and becoming Chamalis’ escort. But despite her own larceny, Mary (who becomes known as “the Swan), becomes disenchanted with Chamalis’ bloody methods of maintaining power within San Francisco’s Barbary Coast neighborhood. He even manages to coerce a newspaper owner named Colonel Cobb, who had accused Chamalis of a past murder, into keeping silent. During a morning ride in the countryside, Mary meets and falls in love with a handsome gold miner named Jim Carmichael. Life eventually becomes more difficult for Mary, as she finds herself torn between Jim’s idyllic love and Chamalis’ luxurious lifestyle and his obsessive passion for her.

Judging from my recap of “BARBARY COAST”, it is easy to see that the movie is more than just a Western. It seemed to be part crime melodrama, part romance, part Western and part adventure story. “BARBARY COAST” seemed to have the makings of a good old-fashioned costume epic that was very popular with Hollywood studios during the mid-to-late 1930s. If there is one scene in the movie that truly personified its epic status, it is one of the opening sequences that featured Mary Rutledge’s arrival in San Francisco and her first meeting with Louis Chamalis. Mary’s first viewing of the socializing inside the Bella Donna is filled with details and reeked with atmosphere. Frankly, I consider this scene an artistic triumph for both director Howard Hawks and the movie’s art director, Richard Day.

“BARBARY COAST” went through four screenwriters and five script revisions to make it to the screen. The movie began as a tale about San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, but ended up as a love triangle within the setting. This was due to the Production Code that was recently enforced by Joseph Breen. The latter objected to the original screenplay’s frank portrayal of the San Francisco neighborhood’s activities. By changing the screenplay into a love story in which the heroine finds redemption through love for a decent sort, the filmmakers finally managed to gain approval from Breen. Although Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur were credited as the movie’s writers, screenwriters Stephen Longstreet and Edward Chodorov also worked on the script, but did not receive any screen credit. Personally, I had no problems with this choice. Thanks to Hawks’ direction, moviegoers still managed to get a few peeps on just how sordid and corrupt San Francisco was during the Gold Rush.

The movie also benefited from a first-rate cast led by Miriam Hopkins, Edward G. Robinson and Joel McCrea. I would not consider their performances as memorable or outstanding, but all three gave solid performances that more or less kept the movie on track. I found this a miracle, considering the emotional rifts that seemed to permeate the set during production. As it turned out, Robinson and Hopkins could barely stand each other. However . . . there were moments when Robinson and McCrea’s performances were in danger of being less than competent. Robinson nearly veered into the realm of over-the-top melodrama while conveying his character’s jealousy in the movie’s last twenty minutes. And McCrea came off as a bit of a stiff in most of his early scenes. Only with Walter Brennan, did the actor truly conveyed his sharp acting skills. As for Hopkins . . . well, she gave a better performance in this movie than she did in the film for which she had earned an Oscar nomination – namely “BECKY SHARP”.

The movie also featured competent performances from the likes of Walter Brennan, Frank Craven, Harry Carey, and Donald Meek. But if I had to give a prize for the most interesting performance in the film, I would give it Brian Donlevy for his portrayal of Louis Chamalis’ ruthless enforcer, Knuckles Jacoby. Superficially, Donlevy’s Knuckles is portrayed as the typical movie villain’s minion, who usually stands around wearing a menacing expression. Donlevy did all this and at the same time, managed to inject a little pathos in a character who found himself in a legally desperation situation, thanks to his loyalty toward his employer.

But you know what? Despite some of the performances – especially Brian Donlevy’s and the movie’s production values, I did not like “BARBARY COAST”. Not one bit. There were at least two reasons for this dislike. One, I was not that fond of Omar Kiam’s costume designs – namely the ones for Miriam Hopkins. The problem with her costumes is that Kiam seemed incapable of determining whether the movie is set in 1850 or 1935. Honestly. A peek at the costume worn by the actress in the image below should convey the contradicting nature of her costume:

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The other . . . and bigger reason why I disliked “BARBARY COAST” is that the plot ended up disappointing me so much. This movie had the potential to be one of the blockbuster costume dramas shown in movie theaters during the mid-to-late 1930s. If only Joseph Breen and the Censor Board had allowed the filmmakers to somewhat follow Asbury’s book and explore the colorful history of San Francisco from the mid-1840s to the California Gold Rush period of the early-to-mid 1850s. Despite the colorful opening featuring Mary Rutledge’s arrival in San Francisco and the subplot about the Louis Chamalis-Colonel Cobb conflict, “BARBARY COAST” was merely reduced to a 90 minute turgid melodrama about a love triangle between a gold digger, a villain with a penchant for being a drama queen, and stiff-necked gold miner and poet who only seemed to come alive in the company of his crotchety companion. To make matters worse, the movie ended with Mary and Jim Carmichael floating around San Francisco Bay, hidden by the darkness and fog, while evading the increasingly jealous Chamalis, before they can board a clipper ship bound for the East Coast. I mean, honestly . . . really?

I have nothing else to say about “BARBARY COAST”. What else is there to say? Judging from the numerous reviews I have read online, a good number of people seemed to have a high regard for it. However, I simply do not feel the same. Neither director Howard Hawks; screenwriters Ben Hetch and Charles MacArthur; and a cast led by Miriam Hopkins, Edward G. Robinson and Joel McCrea could prevent me from feeling only disappointed. Pity.

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